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What Does the New Testament Teach about the Great Apostasy?
2 Thessalonians 2:3
In 1820, as Joseph Smith prayed in the Sacred Grove, he saw God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. Joseph, who had been struggling to know where he might find the true church, asked the divine personages “which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join” (Joseph Smith—History 1:18). The answer Joseph received came as a shock to him and would begin his preparation as a prophet: “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” (Joseph Smith—History 1:19). Because of this, Joseph Smith would be called of God to restore His Church on the earth.
The belief in the Great Apostasy is central to Latter-day Saint teachings—that is, that there was an actual falling away from the gospel as originally taught by Jesus Christ and His Apostles, therefore necessitating a restoration. While this may appear to be a bold claim, closer review of the New Testament shows that the Apostles knew of the forthcoming Apostasy and warned the Church extensively against the false teachers that would come in its wake.
The word apostasy comes from the Greek word apostasia, which literally means “rebellion” and in the New Testament connotes a people rebelling from God.1 However, the meaning of this word is unfortunately often masked in translations into English. For example, the King James Version of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 translates apostasia as “falling away”: “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.”2 While not always clear in translations of the Bible, the connotation of apostasy as a rebellion against God is clearly described in the Book of Mormon (see 3 Nephi 6:18; 4 Nephi 1:38).
Noel B. Reynolds has noted that in light of the evidence from the New Testament and based on the meaning of apostasy as “rebellion,” it is a myth that “the apostasy happened because of outside persecution.”3 Rather, the New Testament consistently describes the forthcoming Apostasy as an internal rebellion by members of the early Church against God and His chosen leaders—a rebellion that became more and more prominent as the Apostles wrote earnestly in hopes that the congregations might repent.4
For example, when Paul was returning to Jerusalem from his third missionary journey, he warned the leaders of Ephesus, “After my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29–30). While the Ephesian Saints were no stranger to persecution from the Greco-Roman world (see Acts 19:24–41), of much greater concern to Paul was that the Ephesian Saints remain loyal to the Lord and their covenants. Moreover, much of Paul’s epistles were written in part to correct false beliefs and attitudes that were arising in the various churches, just as he had foretold.5
Shortly before he was executed under Nero’s command, Paul warned Timothy that the prophesied rebellion was then at hand, as many churches Paul established had forsaken him and the gospel: “All they which are in Asia be turned away from me; of whom are Phygellus and Hermogenes” (2 Timothy 1:15). This rebellion even reached some of Paul’s most trusted missionary companions: “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me” (2 Timothy 4:10–11).
Unfortunately, this rebellion against the gospel would only grow worse, for “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (2 Timothy 4:3–4). Prophecies regarding the apostasy of the New Testament Church were even made by Jesus Christ Himself, such as in the parable of the wheat and the tares,6 and this no doubt influenced how His Apostles shaped their messages.7
The concept of apostasy as a rebellion against the Lord has deep roots in Jewish and Christian tradition. Indeed, as James E. Faulconer has observed, both “faithfulness to God and apostasy from him are often spoken of in terms of covenant [throughout the Old Testament]. To be faithful is to keep covenant; to apostatize is to break covenant.”8 Furthermore, in the Greek Septuagint the word apostasia is used to describe idolatry and forsaking the Lord. Similarly, the same word is used to describe divorce, especially when marriage was used as a metaphor for God’s covenant with Israel. Early Christian texts similarly describe the Apostasy as a corruption of priesthood leaders and a rejection of ordinances and covenants.9 As such, apostasy marks the loss of covenants and priesthood authority that can be restored only through a prophet of God.
While it is evident that the New Testament Apostles knew and warned others about the impending Apostasy, they knew that that was not the end of the story. As Peter told the Saints in Jerusalem, “the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began,” would come (Acts 3:21). This restitution of all things was begun by God the Father and Jesus Christ through the Prophet Joseph Smith.
As Faulconer explained, “We cannot understand what apostasy means for New Testament Christians without understanding that it included the loss of the temple and, so, of the priesthood, for ultimately the rebellion of apostasy involves severing one’s covenant relation to God, a relation manifest through the priesthood, through standing in the presence of God.”10 A serious part of the Restoration entailed restoring covenants and temples, thereby providing a corrective course to this rebellion that corrupted many early Christian doctrines and beliefs. Covenants are essential to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and they allow us to grow closer to our Savior and become more like Him.
James E. Faulconer, “The Concept of the Apostasy in the New Testament,” in Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2005), 133–162.
Noel B. Reynolds, “Appendix C: New Testament Evidences and Prophecies of Apostasy in the First-Century Church,” in Early Christians in Disarray, 355–369.
Kent P. Jackson, “New Testament Prophecies of Apostasy,” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The New Testament, ed. Frank F. Judd Jr. and Gaye Strathearn (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2006), 394–406.
Tad R. Callister, The Inevitable Apostasy and the Promised Restoration (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2006), 24–49.
- 1. See James E. Faulconer, “The Concept of the Apostasy in the New Testament,” in Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], 2005), 133–134.
- 2. It is interesting to note that some second-century Christians recognized the state of the Church following the deaths of the Apostles. For example, citing this verse, Cyril of Jerusalem remarked, “Thus wrote Paul, and now is the falling away. For men have fallen away from the right faith. … And formerly the heretics were manifest; but now the Church is filled with heretics in disguise.” Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 15:9.
- 3. Noel B. Reynolds, “Introduction: What Went Wrong for the Early Christians?,” in Early Christians in Disarray, 7.
- 4. For a list and brief analysis of over forty New Testament scriptures discussing the apostasy of the early Christian Church, see Noel B. Reynolds, “Appendix C: New Testament Evidences and Prophecies of Apostasy in the First-Century Church,” in Early Christians in Disarray, 355–369.
- 5. For a list of relevant passages from Paul’s epistles, see Reynolds, “Appendix C: New Testament Evidences,” 360–366.
- 6. See Book of Mormon Central, “What Does the Parable of the Wheat and Tares Teach about the Apostasy? (Matthew 13:24–25),” KnoWhy 660 (February 28, 2023); John W. Welch and Jeannie S. Welch, The Parables of Jesus: Revealing the Plan of Salvation (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2019), 60–67, 148–151.
- 7. See, for example, Matthew 24:5, 24, in which Jesus warns about false prophets and false Christs who would deceive many people. It is also likely that the Apostasy was a key topic in Jesus’s forty-day ministry. See Book of Mormon Central, “What Might Jesus Have Taught His Apostles for Forty Days? (Acts 1:3),” KnoWhy 678 (July 4, 2023). Some interpreters have erroneously stated that Jesus’s bestowal of the keys to Peter as recorded in Matthew 16:18 demonstrates that Jesus taught there could be no apostasy. However, when read in its proper context, the gates of hell refer specifically to the realms of the dead—thus, Jesus taught that the priesthood authority given to the Apostles would be instrumental in the work of salvation for the dead through proxy ordinances (see Matthew 16:19). The idea that the gates of hell referred to Satan’s power and dominion (which led to the interpretation of Jesus promising the Church would not be overcome by apostasy) is a late addition to the text that would be entirely foreign to the New Testament Church. For a detailed discussion of the gates of hell in this context, see Hugh Nibley, “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” in Mormonism and Early Christianity (Provo, UT: FARMS; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 105–109; see also Book of Mormon Central, “Why Are People Baptized for the Dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29),” KnoWhy 687 (September 5, 2023).
- 8. Faulconer, “Concept of the Apostasy,” 137.
- 9. See Faulconer, “Concept of the Apostasy,” 137–138, 143–155. Examples of apostasiaas a description of forsaking the Lord include Joshua 22:22 and 2 Chronicles 29:19.
- 10. Faulconer, “Concept of the Apostasy,” 162.
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